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On war, peace, memories and dance Print-ready version

by John Mackie
CanWest News Service
January 15, 2010

The Fiddle and the Drum
When: Jan. 22-24, 8 p.m.
Where: Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Tickets: $20 to $89, available Tickemaster

VANCOUVER - Joni Mitchell talks to the press about as often as Halley's Comet streaks across the sky. When she did agree to chat about a new ballet set to her music, The Fiddle and the Drum, it came with a list of topics you aren't supposed to ask about.

But when she comes on the long-distance line from her home in Los Angeles, it's like she hasn't talked to anybody for a week. The words and concepts fly out at breakneck speed, veering from the ballet to slack key Hawaiian music, her old Saskatoon school chum Katie McKitrick to the similarities between George W. Bush and Adolf Hitler.

She's engaging, she's funny, she's serious, she's outrageous, she's incisive, she's brilliant, and she's utterly compelling. At the end of talking for 45 minutes straight, she asked if I had taped her, or taken notes. (Pity the person who doesn't tape her, because she talks so fast I had to put the digital recorder on "slow" mode to transcribe.)

The new ballet was conceived by Jean Grand-Maitre of the Alberta Ballet in Calgary, who was looking to do something unique to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his organization in 2007. A friend thought a ballet based on Joni Mitchell songs would be cool. Grand-Maitre agreed, and sent her a proposal for a ballet called Dancing Joni.

"I thought the chances were one in a million [she'd reply], because she's solicited in many different directions all the time," says Grand-Maitre, who brings The Fiddle and the Drum to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Jan. 22-24 as part of the Cultural Olympiad. "We sent her a package with a letter and a photo of the ballet."

The letter was fine, but what really stuck Mitchell was the photo.

"The photo was synchronistic," she says. "The photo they sent me was a girl who looks like she's nine. She's wearing a pink tutu, and she's standing under a street light. It's in Edmonton, but it looks exactly like where I grew up [in Saskatoon] between five and nine. I lived where that photo was taken. War-time housing, you know? The houses were even the same colour, and in the same order. It was really uncanny.

"At that age I dreamed of being a dancer, but I had polio. My parents thought, You can't do that now, because you had polio.'"

Mitchell invited Grand-Maitre to go down to L.A. to talk. She bluntly told him Dancing Joni was a "little fluffy for the times," and had a better idea: a "war ballet," featuring some of her most challenging songs.

He thought it was a great concept. The project took off, going from a 20- minute ballet performed in tandem with works by Schubert and Tchaikovsky to a 50-minute TV special for Bravo and finally a full 113-minute ballet.

The common theme running through the 14 songs is war and the environment. The program includes some of her hits (Big Yellow Taxi, Woodstock, For The Roses), but is largely made up of lesser-known numbers like Sex Kills, The Three Great Stimulants and Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

As it happened, when Grand-Maitre approached Mitchell she was already working on an art show inspired by her rage at the latter-day Bush era, featuring famous warmongers and dictators alongside the Busby Berkeley dancers, the 1930s movie troupe famed for their elaborate routines.

"I was so mad at Bush that I was doing an art show that was kind of like [the Marx Brothers movie] Duck Soup, you know, a war is a war is a war," she said.

"It was big images with war images shot off the television, interspersed with the Busby Berkeley dancers for comic relief. So it was Hitler and the Busby Berkeley dancers, Stalin and the Busby Berkeley dancers, Bush and the Busby Berkeley dancers."

Mitchell's paintings became the set, and she collaborated closely with Grand- Maitre on how to translate her music into dance.

"She gave me an enormous amount of input on each song, where they came from, what they were about," says Grand-Maitre, in a conference call from Calgary.

"She let me into her world and shared it generously with me. Almost every song in the ballet, how it's happening in the staging and how it's developing, were ideas given to me by Joni."

Never one to mince words, Mitchell says "we did something new in the history of ballet."

"Ballet dancers are kind of trained to have wooden heads, like figure skaters," she states.

"In this [ballet], they have to have emotion, because the music is so emotional. It's more like opera, they have to be able to act a little bit."

What does she mean, ballet dancers are "trained to have wooden heads like figure skaters?"

"They're just supposed to be representing abstract figures, they're supposed to be more like dolls or puppets in most pieces," says Mitchell. "They're trained that way . . . ."

". . . .In classical repertoire," Grand-Maitre says, interjecting.

In any case, the ballet has received excellent reviews.

"Alberta Ballet's dancers infuse their performance with electrifying intensity, digging into Grand-Maitre's sometimes athletically supercharged choreography with passionate commitment," Michael Crabb wrote in the National Post.

"Grand-Maitre's company is mostly young, muscular and bare-skinned, an essentially human touch," Susan Walker wrote in the Toronto Star.

"They move as a community, dancing exuberantly. This is not a ballet yearning to be Broadway. The Fiddle and the Drum is uniquely Joni, offering up her music for dance interpretation."

The ballet opens with the a cappella anti-war song The Fiddle and The Drum, and ends with a new recording of Big Yellow Taxi, the environmental anthem with the oft-repeated line, "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

What inspired it?

"I think it was in 1967," says Mitchell, 66.

"I went to visit some friends who were playing in Hawaii. I came in at night, went to a big hotel, woke up in the morning, pulled back the curtains and saw green mountains and white birds flying along with long tails.

"Then I looked down and as far as the eye could see there was a parking lot. So I wrote it that morning. It's like a nursery rhyme. When it was released, only in Hawaii was it an original hit."

What's it like to write a line that is repeated every day, all over the world, decades later?

"Well, it's done some good," she says.

"People have sent me some pictures from places: Look Joni, this used to be a parking lot, we turned it into a city garden.' So in its small way it has done some actual urban revival. I heard the mayor here [in L.A. use it] recently. They loaned their technology for cleaning up the L.A. River to Seoul, Korea, and they said, You can unpave paradise.'

"So you hear it around. It's been a utilitarian slogan. It's been a good little workhorse. But it's a nursery rhyme, and like all nursery rhymes it's cheerful [even though it deals with a serious topic]. Like Ring Around The Rosie is about the Black Plague. It's designed for children to sing. In New Jersey it was taught in the school system, and in New York, too, to Grade 3 students. So it went into the culture, in a way."

Mitchell has always been an environmental activist. In fact, she helped launch Greenpeace by playing a benefit show at the Pacific Coliseum in 1970. A fabulous tape of the show (which also featured James Taylor and Phil Ochs) was recently released by Greenpeace as a fundraiser.

"The idea was to do a concert, and raise money to buy a boat to sail up to Amchitka, and sit in the territorial waters where they did underground testing on [top of] the San Andreas Fault," she recalls.

"Testing of atomic bombs is complete lunacy anyway, but to pick a place where there were Inuit and seal breeding grounds, and right on the San Andreas Fault, I mean there's no unstupid place to test the nuclear bomb, but could they have picked a stupider place?"

Mitchell hopes to be in Vancouver for the opening of The Fiddle and The Drum, but has some health problems and may miss it. She says she suffers from Morgellons Syndrome, an unexplained illness for which there is as yet no cure.

"My body is like Afghanistan," she says. "It's a complex infection. I can't afford to get a flu on top of it or anything. I'm pretty fragile and it's pretty uncomfortable."

Mitchell says she is trying herbs and experimental treatments for her illness. "There's a lot of maintenance, self maintenance," she adds. "I don't want to dwell on it or anything, but I'm trying to get there".

Although she's lived in L.A. since the late 1960s, she also keeps a cabin in an idyllic spot-on the Sunshine Coast.

"It's my heartbeat," she says.

"My home there is my heartbeat. I have long-term friends here [in Los Angeles] that are hard to let go of, they're like family to me. My family so to speak is here, the best relationships that I've made. I go up there and it's pretty isolated, and I go to write and work in the beautiful setting close to the ocean. It's my soul."

jmackie@vancouversun.com

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Added to Library on January 15, 2010. (1153)

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